Adorno, Deleuze and Guattari, the Gods that failed.
[ 3,853 words ]
Published in Maple Tree Literary Supplement, issue #19.
This past year repeated complaints of boring art exhibitions have appeared in print and that should raise an alarm. Can we suggest these complaints come from disingenuous curatorial decisions and so are but a short blip on the radar of art history? Or hint that the art world has been delusional for decades and has finally run off the rails?? No, of course we can’t! A friendly curator pointed out that everyone wants love and reassurance therefore when someone disagrees with us it is obvious they are not worth our time; by disagreeing they have crossed a line. This includes a haughty at those with a different view or the wrong accent, and a snub at street talk. We react with cynicism at other’s criticism; we raise our eyebrow at the socially awkward, we brush off the over-zealous and insecure. There is an understanding within the art world of what is allowed, of who is heard and who is silenced, we communicate in tribal language and gang signs… In a nutshell, we may see ourselves along with Hamlet as kings or queens of semiotic space… were it not that we have bad dreams.
Lane Relyea recently blogged that visual art fails when compared to literature.2 This because art objects are now ‘universal’; the work looks similar on every continent creating exhibitions where the art is glanced at for a minute, if only… meanwhile Sealan Twerdy points out that a good book can hold one’s interest for weeks on end. We are told that the exciting aspect of art was in the social connectivity that buzzed around it, exposing a previously unnoticed migration of value from art to the social network.
Are we facing a reality check, a cold shower? Have Relyea and Twerdy unleashed the hounds of hell? They seem to agree that art is boring, superficial, an excuse to party and network, nothing but a hustle. Then William Derensowitz joins in with “The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur”3. Derensowitz writes that "10,000 hours is less important now than 10,000 contacts" but for Malcolm Gladwell in The Outliers ten thousand hours was the time it took to achieve mastery; ten thousand contacts say you’re a master at the art of sales, not the art of art. At least Twerdy recognizes creativity but Lane and William seem to believe that being a salespeep is the highest value an artist can aspire to. Their assertions are mistaken when they simply approve the status quo while ignoring the pachyderm4 in the room. That very elephant, if asked, could tell us of a movement to strip the art object of magic, a dastardly plot to say that art was never that great nor worth the effort…. but if you’re ok with art being boring should you be an art critic? Perhaps writers say that literature trumps visual art because, you know, writers.
An intelligent approach to art has been so successful that it reached an enantiodromia; when things get to their extreme they turn into their opposite. It might seem logical to think along with Levi-Strauss that the artist decides what to paint, learns the techniques and then does it, but it’s not that simple. Perhaps intellectuals see art as a factual process without creativity or any hint of spiritual elements. If so their explanation fails to describe what they cannot. It is also possible that literature conquered the visual and reduced it to a description of itself, the visual now captive of the verbal, as Walter Klepac5 wrote. Literature is queen of the arts; it is through words we communicate most effectively and most often. In business it was always management that controlled workers; in academia it is intellectuals who control the definition of art, much to its detriment since if you only hum that one tune people will eventually complain.
The Whitney Museum announced this year that they are cancelling their Biennial, giving temporary curatorial control to the commercial galleries they are involved with. Another review notes that 1/3rd of all museum exhibitions show artists belonging to only five galleries.6 Homogeneity prevails when Relyea writes about the universality of contemporary art… I myself saw this on a European tour visiting galleries and seeing different artists exhibiting almost exactly the same objects and installations in Madrid, Barcelona, Budapest, Vienna, Paris and London. Is imitation the sincerest form of conformity or is assimilation the consequence of conforming to theory?
While second-rate minds are confused our finest writers praise the worst mistakes instead of sweeping them out with a fresh broom. Instead of bowing to the gods of “been there, done that” writers could rebel and protest. Of course I’m being naive; critics are raised and bred in schools that sandpaper, varnish, and polish the status quo; it would not do to oppose your professor or your diploma. Later on those writers will review shows at galleries who advertise in the magazines that pay the writers, it’s an ouroboros [worm that eats its own tail], a closed system that pretends to criticism but won’t consider any. This very article was politely rejected by every art journal as unsuitable for their readers, sniff, sniff, and had to masquerade as literature in order to get published.
Let us pin the reason for art boredom on editors, (you know who you are) writers, professors, galerists and curators who throttled the muse, poor thing. They’ve limited participation to those sharing the same outlook and language, restricting the game to believers (beliebers) in a common ideology, in effect creating a tautology... yet Susan Sontag, Robert Morgan, Rob Storr, and more, they rang that bell, they warned us back in 1994. Academics gamed the system since artists could not think that well; tenure track stifled the arts till the poor thing is nearly dead. Will art perish? Can we finally dispense with the art object and be just... you know... smart?
In 1996 Stuart Servetar wrote a N.Y.Press article titled The Inspeak of the Overlords; "Robert Storr (artist, critic, author and curator in the Dept. Of Painting and Sculpture at MOMA) spoke of a language created by a class of critics and artists, a class that lost all sight of the common reader and created a cult of difficulty based on jargon - the words used like pieces in an erector set to reference their own theories to other theories rather than to works of art.”7 A language designed to elevate the high priests above the common clown. Wilde wrote of "the violence of the literary man. It seems to bear no reference to facts, for it is never kept in check by action. It is simply a question of adjectives and rhetoric, of exaggeration and over-emphasis.8
For many the frustration of today’s art theory is that it does not talk about art, it but pretends to and the absence of substance is heartfelt. It seems a technical language driven by and designed for semiotic theory. As explained further down, applying semiotic thought to visual art is like working on the engine of a Corvette GTE while referring to the veterinarian manual for dissecting a smelly octopus; analytic reductivism fails to consider the creative spirit as anything other than an idea, a thought. Rob Storr agrees; in a March 24, 2015 interview with Yale University Radio he said that he doesn’t think the American version of French theory or a Frankfurt school in contemporary art criticism is of much use to anybody. We read in psychology that intellectual thought is a subliminal function, not located in the conscious mind, and that even consciousness of our own thoughts is secondary, after the fact. This leads to a controversial conclusion that meaning is hard wired and not something we impose on the sign (as stated by Peirce), rather the sign is the concrete form of meaning shaped and altered by events through history. If meaning is not an interpretation then consciousness may be an impediment that keeps art from being sublime.
Derrida's method of deconstruction was to look past the irony and ambiguity to the layer that genuinely threatens to collapse that system. He would have loved the notion that to be successful today an artist must be avant-garde or even post-avant-garde. It follows that where there's a territory there must be a script, a look, model, style; an orthodoxy that subverts, negates and contradicts being avant-garde (pre or post). Most fine arts producers graduate from similar schools and share the same values, which are reflected in their association, their production, and the systems created thereby… surely a cultural blindness results from such group judgments. In school we’re told the avant-garde took risks, the best had to make room for the better. Looks like taking risks needs reflection and practice before you get really good at it.
I remember friends who produced fascinating original work before they left for graduate school at which time they passed under the cookie cutters. They’re now showing in museums but their work is sadly trite and boring… and when they’d ask “howzit?” I would flash a big smile. Their originality was gone, their aesthetic and personal contribution had vanished, in its place we see found objects or images shot by others printed mural size to make it nice and contemporary. Yesterday’s cultural producers are committed to an intellectual art grounded in thought. This cultural definition is complex and complete, so well defined and clearly understood that few people notice how art theory bears little relation to the creative process as it occurs in the field.
A metaphor would look instead at 17th century European medical students in a dissection room where the barber surgeon cuts the corpse while a learned professor read from Galen, [approx. 100C.E., a prominent Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher in the Roman empire, who only dissected pigs and those animals sport a rather different physiology]. The barber surgeon would pull out a liver while the professor read from Galen that here we have lungs, and the students would take studious notes. A person’s research should exceed their grasp, else what’s a meta for?
Critical Art Ensemble (Electronic Disturbance, Autonomedia) wrote that "Duchamp’s use of the inverted urinal as a ready-made suggests that the distinguished art object draws its power from an historical legitimization process firmly rooted in the institutions of western culture, and not from being an unalterable conduit to transcendental realms". Mary Ann Staniszewski in Believing Is Seeing added: "when an artist creates a work of Art it has no intrinsic use or value; but when the artwork circulates within the systems of art (galleries, art histories, art publications, museums, and so on) it acquires a depth of meaning, a breath of importance, and an increase in value that is greater proportionately than perhaps anything else in the modern world." In plain English, the art’s worthless unless confirmed by a peer review of learned professors counting angels on the head of a pin. Beneficiaries include art critics who weave the new clothes while a brightly cheering public discretely ignores the emperor’s privates on public display.
While Critical Art Ensemble denies that art is an unalterable conduit to transcendental realms, we could point out that Pharaonic art hasn’t changed in two thousand years and as the Sphinx barely moved during that time some art at least has proved ‘unalterable’. Wiki says ‘transcendental’ is climbing or going beyond some philosophical concept or limit. We surpass concepts and limits daily, therefore transcendental realms obviously exist. The institutions of western culture can help or hinder the flow of ideas but they do not legitimize the work, often they haven’t a clue… change the slide to Damien Hirst please.
Art rides roughshod over art theory when an image engages the mind in a powerful grip. Van Gogh or Immendorf's paintings rise above what you can say of them. Ideas have a life of their own, a legitimacy grounded in a collective consciousness and a collective unconscious, a legitimacy inherent in their power to move us; some ideas have changed the world. That is the strength of art. Masterly art objects will resonate, awaken deep feelings, activate archetypes embedded in the aesthetics of art. If it’s good art it ages well and speaks for itself even when at times it whispers or shouts, each glimpse is like a thousand words.
Is art an unalterable conduit to transcendental realms? Canadian talk show host Dini Petty spoke of seeing a Van Gogh at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris that made her cry, a painting that triggered powerful affects, which reminds us that Van Gogh wrote of his intention to use color to express deep emotions. His images trigger such feelings that we find ourselves in a world beyond our limits, one that is transcendental. Simply put, there’s a magic world that can move us to joy or sorrow. Being smart can fail but our ignorance reeks with potential.
In 1969 Harold Rosenberg in The New Yorker wrote that "The function of the university is to impart knowledge, but art is not solely knowledge and the problems proposed by knowledge; art is also ignorance and the eager consciousness of the unknown that impels creation. No matter how cultivated he is, every creator is in some degree a naïf, a primitive, and relies on his particular gift of ignorance."9 Robert Storr explained that in the 1960s the art world moved from the Cedar Tavern to the seminar room. Unfortunately in academia as in all institutions there’s no place for eccentrics, confusion, chaos, the indescribable. In the arts “quality” is also downplayed since personal judgments are contestable, undemocratic. Yet we differ more than we think.
Carl Jung writes of four mental functions. Sensations inform us of the external world, the intellect compares and classifies, feelings tell it’s worth to us (value judgments), and the intuition can peek around corners. For most people one function predominates. Intellectuals are rarely sensualists. This difference leads to misunderstandings, as we are often blind to another’s brilliant light.
Nossis of Locri was a Greek epigrammist and poet circa 300 BCE who lived in southern Italy at Locri. Her epigrams were inspired by Sappho, whom she claimed to rival. Her words might well echo in the arts today; "Nothing is sweeter than Eros. All other delights are second to it. Whomever Aphrodite has not kissed knows not what flowers are her roses.”11 We rethink sensations and sensuality in art when reading that in a 1998 panel discussion titled “Vision and Visuality” sponsored by the Dia Art Foundation, Rosalind Kraus mentioned that Duchamp hated retinal art and when he talked about it, it was always to belittle it. We'd be confused hearing Stravinsky say that he hated melody... yet Duchamp's profoundly influenced the visual arts.
So much that at a 1995 conference on aesthetics at New York’s International Center for Photography the audience called for a rejection of aesthetic in art. And the work on the walls had been de-aestheticized. Large photographs by well-know artists in veined wooden frames so wide they competed with and negated the visual impact of the work, leaving those photographs to be read as milestones, they had become illustrations of photographic history. The status of photography as an art form has plummeted since and the medium is no longer a high note as it was twenty years ago.
It seems evident if art is boring it is bad art. Even when artists claim boredom as a disingenuous statement it defines a bad artist who made a bad choice, else the dictionary contradicts itself. Solipsism is not an option; art should be explanatory, not textplanatory nor leaning on history; that is no longer art but illustration... of art theory. An illustration awakens no feeling, it is not something we yearn for, technically skilled reproduction are a neutral medium. We don't accept commercial illustration as art unless contextualized, nor should we accept those who illustrate art theory as a career. Susan Sontag writes “the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellectual upon art.”11
It took me a lifetime to learn that what I saw as my own intellectual failure might simply have been a paradigm shift, a way of seeing the world. At the age of 14 I was puzzled by Duchamp’s glass installation "The Bride Stripped Bare", I could not make sense of it for decades till one day it dawned on me the thing was a Sphinx. One that presented a riddle without answers. The work pretended to be intelligent beyond comprehension but actually it was empty, did not say anything and it accomplished this by hinting at seemingly hidden secrets in order to dazzle the gullible. Could the conceptual movement as launched by Duchamp be an act, a ritual of making objects that looked intelligent and pretend to knowledge? Did Duchamp create a fetish of knowledge, appealing to the hidden religious side of thinkers, the blind spot of intellectuals? Duchamp’s grandchildren, felt, fat, and fur, have also twiddled with critical discernment and honesty in the arts; Joseph Beuys made it all up, excusing his moral lapse on the grounds the art world needed myths.
The fatal attraction of intellectual art is that so few people demonstrate any capacity for deep thought that intellectual mysteries are appealing. There is a thrill to the very idea that here resides knowledge sharing the same space as your heavy feet, or perhaps it is enough to know the work is smart and you’re smart by association. A mythical participation in confirmed intellectual activity would be tantalizing to those who admire and grasp for things of the mind… as the picture-porn of Impressionism does the same for sensualists. Quantum physicists have expensive machines testify to the simultaneous absence and presence of nothing, poets have Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez, and those who think also need something to draw them forward, make them yearn for the unknown with promise of greater thoughts to come, an encouragement to try harder. Now imagine if we were to banish these false idols, how do we find a genuine knowledge and definition of art? What and whom can we trust? We need new observations.
The original meaning of art as in “the culinary arts” meant more than just a stir-fry. It meant a experienced, skilled, dedicated master making extraordinary work. This elitism offended many who considered leveling art to something done without effort, in fact by hiring technicians to do the dirty deed. One might as well hire an Olympic athlete to win a gold medal in your name. In 1617, Sir Dudley Carleton, for instance, protested to Rubens that paintings offered to him as by the hand of the artist himself were in fact largely the work of his studio. Rubens was quick to replace them with works he could vouch for as being entirely his own — it would not do to acquire a reputation for passing off inferior work as original. In 1652, Peter van Halen, painter and Master of the Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp purchased Brueghel’s painting Cattle Market for 204 guilders. On closer examination, Van Halen decided it was not an original but a copy. After three years of lawsuits, van Halen managed to establish that the painting was indeed a studio copy made by Brueghel’s assistants and was awarded damages.12
Possibly the most important observation of creativity came to me at the age of 17, as I got lost in a drawing where I followed my feelings by adding color here and shading there. A few hours later I had an amazing image and understood that something had worked through me, something had risen from darkness impenetrable just as Emily Carr had described:
"Oh, God, what have I seen? Where have I been? Something has spoken to the very soul of me, wonderful, mighty, not of this world. Chords way down in my being have been touched. Dumb notes have struck chords of wonderful tone. Something has called out of somewhere. Something in me is trying to answer. It is surging through my whole being, the wonder of it all, like a great river rushing on, dark and turbulent, and rushing and unresisting, carrying me away on it's wild swirl like a helpless bundle of wreckage".
It seems that aesthetics, beauty, and sensory artifacts are never neutral, they always carry unconscious content reflecting the great cultural currents and conflicts of our times. In nature a bee’s dance informs the hive of the location of a field of flowers, including sun-oriented hourly-based data and the caloric value of that patch. All without any consciousness that a human can discern. This leads to far reaching speculation on unconscious content in the artwork of the naked ape!
In closing we need to ask whodunit, whatsitfor, whodat up in the sky? Who was that masked man? Art fell to a sorry disgraced status and no one noticed yet the public often thinks art sucks, they’re asking why can’t we have children’s drawings in museums instead? Art itself takes revenge on us in the form of a Richard Stella steel plate that fell and killed a workman. How obvious can it get before we sit up and take notice? One of Canada’s most esteemed curators was disturbed when I let slip that perhaps artists like General Idea appropriated the credibility of scientists because of insecurity about art in an age of science certitude. This really meant lesser artists failing to find meaning in their field. This fissure once took place in religion and gave us Christian Scientists. Artists are now social scientists, ethical moralists, lab coated physicists or semiotically dressed mechanics. For most this is gratifying but the rest of us would ask for more. If art is boring it ain’t art … which means we need to howl for amazing work and when that is lacking we should not hesitate to byte. Just sayin… criticism on a bed of witticism.
Text: © Miklos Legrady. All rights reserved.
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